By Roderick Benns
As a youth growing up in Calgary, Robert-Falcon Ouellette remembers being inspired by the 1988 Olympics. Ouellette’s parents struggled financially, and his father was in and out of the picture. But his mother managed enough money so he could enjoy swimming at the City pool where he took to the water “like a fish.”
“I was there as much as possible – I just loved every minute of it,” says Ouellette, who is now Member of Parliament for Winnipeg Centre.
“Until one day a coach spotted me and invited me to join the University of Calgary swim team.”
The coach talked to both Ouellette and his mother, but the cost was a couple thousand dollars per year. He remembers the coach telling his mom that her son had great natural talent which should be developed. But the financial barrier was too severe for the family. In fact, even the visits to the City pool for leisure swimming soon stopped, also for financial reasons.
“That was a real dream of mine,” says Ouellette. “I’m still marked by it.”
Ouellette, who has gone hungry before as a youth and even spent one summer homeless, says he is sure there are many stories like this that have played out similarly across Canada, many much worse than his. Persistent poverty and lost opportunities are the kinds of things he suspects would dramatically be reduced if Canada had a basic income.
A basic income guarantee can take different forms but it is generally understood to ensure everyone an income that is sufficient to meet their basic needs, regardless of work status. The rookie MP is determined to have empirical evidence of how such a social policy change might benefit Canadian families, by establishing basic income pilot projects in the country.
His determination to have data undoubtedly comes from his depth of education. Ouellette is something of a Renaissance man, with degrees in music, education, and a PhD in anthropology. He also has 19 years under his belt with the Canadian Armed Forces, retiring from the Royal Canadian Navy with the rank of Petty Officer 2nd Class. Even now, he remains a part of the naval reserve.
The MP, who serves on the House of Commons’ finance committee, recently invited Professor Evelyn Forget to Ottawa to make a presentation because he wants his Party to consider testing the idea in a few regions across Canada, including rural, urban, and on a First Nations’ reserve. Forget was the researcher who unearthed promising data from the well-known Mincome experiment, which ran from 1974 through 1978 and which helped establish a minimum income for about a third of the people who lived there.
Forget dug up the records from the period and found there were fewer emergency room visits and less recorded incidents of domestic abuse. As well, less people sought treatment for mental health issues and more high school students continued on to finish Grade 12 to graduate.
When she appeared before the committee, Forget recommended a basic income of $18,000 per year. It would be paid, when necessary, by using the existing federal tax system. People could still earn money over and above this basic income but Forget recommends it be taxed back at a rate of 50 per cent on each dollar earned over $18,000.
When he was running for a seat in the federal election, Ouellette actually met a woman in a working class neighbourhood of Winnipeg who had been a participant in the Mincome experiment. It was a story Ouellette found inspiring. The Mincome money she received allowed her to go back to school to finish her education while she raised her three sons. Today, two of her sons have their Masters degrees, with one working for the City of Winnipeg and the other for Manitoba Hydro. The third son owns his own business.
“Here’s a single mom who was always just trying to get ahead. She now owns her own, small home and she helped her sons do well. That’s the hope for basic income – that’s why it deserves to be tested,” says the MP.
To that end, Ouellette has sponsored an online petition here to bring pressure and attention to this issue for his own government to support further study. He will likely have some high level supporters in Ottawa. Jean-Yves Duclos, federal Minister of Families, Children and Social Development, stated to several media outlets that a guaranteed minimum income is a policy with merit for discussion. As well, Senator Art Eggleton, has just called on the federal government to launch a basic income pilot.
Quebec has strongly signalled its interest in turning their existing income support tools in the direction of a basic income guarantee and Ontario recently announced it would fund a basic income pilot in an undisclosed location.
“We often hear poor people just make bad choices. Sometimes societies make those choices for us, though. If we have a society that supposedly believes in meritocracy without opportunity, then you don’t have a society of merit you have one of privilege,” he says.
“And as a society we just might be losing out.”